We noticed that you're using an unsupported browser. The TripAdvisor website may not display properly.We support the following browsers:
Windows: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome. Mac: Safari.

“A great week in Sanibel”
Review of Sanibel Island

Map updates are paused. Zoom in to see updated info.
Reset zoom
Updating Map...
Bronx (New York) and Langrolay-sur-Rance (Brittany,France)
Level 3 Contributor
9 reviews
13 helpful votes
“A great week in Sanibel”
Reviewed March 10, 2007

We were two middle-aged women friends, looking to catch a bit of divorce-stress R&R. We chose Sanibel-Captiva because it was warm, a relatively short flight away from New York, and has exceptional wildlife and nature-related activities to offer, including great beachcombing, which we both like.

We landed, as luck would have it, in the Holiday Inn, and that turned out to be a great choice--good value for Sanibel, and better-than-average amenities for a Holiday Inn, including a decent refrigerator and microwave in the room. The room itself was your basic model, not huge, but perfectly fine for two friends who weren't there to sit indoors. The location, directly on a great Gulf-side beach, is superb, the landscaping is exceptional, and there are ibis and herons in the hotel ponds, and sometimes (apparently) alligator as well. There is very good coffee in the lobby, a small but nice pool with a bar (that closes early, unfortunately), nice beach chairs (some with shades), bicycles to rent and pleasant, efficient staff. The hotel restaurant was uninspiring--expensive, a bit pretentious without the food or the service being particularly good. Breakfast was better than dinner, but a good honest coffee-shop would have been more welcome, and after the first day we went elsewhere.

We found the hotel to be very quiet-- patronized by a few families and a lot of other quiet people like ourselves. People set their shell finds out on their windowsills to be admired, a local tradition. Expect to climb with your luggage if you are on the second floor--they don't have busboy service or elevators.

Sanibel-Captiva had more than enough attractions to keep us outdoors every day for a week, and we didn't get to everything. I wouldn't go there for the fine dining, but we weren't into food. We found decent fish-and-baked potato with choice of soup or salad to start at Timbers Fish Restaurant, and a huge menu of varied choices at The Island Cow, which serves breakfast and lunch as well as dinner.

For outdoor activities, we recommend: Captiva Cruise's half-day excursion to La Costa Island's southernmost beach, which is wild, protected park and magic if seeing osprey up close feeding their young is your idea of heaven, or you like exceptional shell collecting or beach walking. The longer, full-day excursion to the more developed northern end of the island was more crowded, and neither as interesting nor as rich in wildlife.

The tram ride through the Ding Darling nature preserve was disappointing--the woman who talked pitched her spiel so low, even the children who were there thought it was dumb. We dwelt at excruciating length on plants and rushed past the birds and the one alligator. I don't think all the tram-ride lecturers are like this--this one seemed rather inexperienced--so it might pay to ask for guidance ahead of time.

Later we walked part of the same drive though the reserve, which was much better (forget the hot, unscenic Indigo Trail). Bicycling would been an even better way to do it, with a decent guidebook.

We also highly recommend taking one of the canoes or kayaks rented by Tarpon Bay Explorers through the mangrove paddling trail in Tarpon Bay. You want to go when the tide is high (the place is all mudflats at low tide, and you can't get as close to the shore), if possible early or late in the day. You do not have to be athletic or have either upper-body strength or previous paddling experience to do this, it is very safe and easy. Expect to get damp if you take a kayak, from the dripping of the paddle. We started off around 2, and once in among the mangrove realized that the best way to do it is slowly, paddling as little as possible, drifting along with the current. Pretty soon, if you don't make noise and keep your eyes open, you will start seeing things--birds, fish, horseshoe crabs, king conches promenading along the bottom, undersea life of all kinds (the water is mostly only a couple of feet deep). The birds are amazing--we saw several different species of herons, ditto egrets, ibis, duck-like birds, anhingas, pelicans, most of them big and showy enough, and unafraid enough, so that even nearsighted novices could see them easily and observe them at length. Neither of us is a birdwatcher, but we were mesmerized. We got lost, un-lost, and made it back just in time for closing, the light was beautiful and the birds were starting to settle down for the night where you could see them. The hardest part was hoisting our middle-aged carcasses out of the kayaks. Watch for tree branches though--there are a lot of fallen trees from storm damage, perfect habitat but you could poke out an eye, drifting under a fallen tangle of branches while looking at birds.

The rest of the time we systematically went to all the local Sanibel and Captiva beaches we could. Get there by 9 or 10, or at 4-5 pm, and you won't have a parking problem. They were all different and all interesting. Bring a small white bucket, and if you find a live scallop thrown up by the surf, stick it in a pail of seawater and observe it. It will open up and you will see the mantle and its two rows of blue eyes shining. Then return it to the water, since live collecting is prohibited on Sanibel and Captiva islands.

The Bailey-Matthews shell museum is definitely worth a stop, even if you are not a rabid shell collector. It is very small and well-laid out, and has something for everyone.

You can ride bicycles everywhere but be aware that the hotel prices were higher than the same bicycles rented from the source--Billy's. The distances are long, sunny and hot for the heavy, one-speed steeds they offer, so consider getting lighter ones with gears if you want to cycle places. After the first day (a 16-mile round trip on these behemoths) we wimpily returned to taking the car to the beaches.

Sanibel is expensive without being fancy. The winter residents are mostly retired folk, the transient visitors we saw were older people with nature interests and young families. The island closes down early and there is little to do at night but walk the beach or sit in a hammock under the stars, unless you take one of the numerous evening nature excursions on offer (which we never got to--another trip.) If a quiet, civilized vacation in a stunning and accessible natural environment is what you want, this is a perfect destination. And if you are a shell collector, you will probably not be disappointed--I am identifying my finds with the help of the very useful website of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, and have over 60 different species so far, including some rather choice items. Many more went back to the sea, to be found by other visitors or ground into Sanibel's fluffy, snowy sand.

5 Thank Marie-Annick
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
Fairfax, Virginia
Level 4 Contributor
5 reviews
23 helpful votes
“Filthy Unwalkable Beaches on Sanibel Island”
Reviewed February 14, 2007

Our review is okay because we love the weather and the place we are staying. The problem is the fouled condition on the beaches which stretch along the Gulf Coast.

If you read what the city has been saying, it gives the appearance that the beaches are being cleaned of the red algae (not red tide) which has inundated the once-beautiful beaches here. Not so. We haven't seen any cleaning, but whatever the city is doing seems to be confined to that miniscule portion located on public beaches or parks. Most of the charm of this place used to be to walk out of one's home, condo, or hotel and walk the beaches for hundreds of yards or even for several miles in either direction.

Because of the deep (up to more than 12") and wide (many feet wide) red algae it is difficult to walk and the charm of the famous shell beaches is all but lost.

We are staying at a wonderful place, but have walked more than a mile each way up the gulf side of the island from our place and have seen zero cleaning efforts. I kid you not. This has even changed the sound of the water as the waves come into shore.

No more sound of water running over shells. A few people are sifting thru algae looking for shells, but it's hopeless

This is a responsibility for city officials to step up to. Their announcement is very misleading because it makes it sound like they are cleaning up the island's beaches, but it's efforts (not seen by us yet) must be only very focused on public property. We'll be exploring more today and report back to you what we find. In the meantime, if you want warm weather and pleasant hotels, this is still the place to come. If you want to walk the beaches, there are many better places to spend your money. Do not come down if it is the beaches you are coming for until you hear that there is an organized campaign to clean the place up.

9 Thank pjldawn
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
Kansas City
Level 2 Contributor
2 reviews
4 helpful votes
“Red Tide”
Reviewed February 5, 2007

We just retrned from Sanibel Island and Red tide is rather heavy at times. At low tide it is bad in certain areas and the next day it could be totaly gone. We did not see any on Capitiva Island. Of the 7 days we were there 3 days the algee was like a carpet for about 6 ft from the water. My understanding is that they are going to start cleaning it up. On the bad days we would go up to Capitiva. Over all we had a great time, this was our 4th trip, cant wait to go back.

2 Thank mickeith
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
Rochester NY
Level 5 Contributor
80 reviews
33 helpful votes
“Wonderful week”
Reviewed January 13, 2007

I just returned from a week at Sanibel Island, FL. what a beautiful and peaceful place to stay. I was lucky and had a free week at a condo (Shell island Beach Club-- a Hilton timeshare) courtesy of a friend. We were at the lighthouse end of the Island. The beaches are lovely and what is interesting is they are different as you go north along the coast. Bowman's beach is a good place to go shelling and watch the sunset(it is about halfway up the island), The bike/walking path all along the length of the island is great. Went for a couple of bike rrides. Everyone was friendly. Food at the Hungry Heron and the Island Cow was very good and pletiful for the prices. You have to have breakfast at the Lighthouse Cafe! Seafood omelet to die for.

Yes there was occasional red seaweed on the beach but tide washed away, and the sun dried it out. I was told that a month before it was really bad. But this is a natural beach and that is what makes it so unique and wonderful. If you want a commercialized place and chain stores and restaurants, stay on the mainland. If you want something different and relaxing, try Sanibel. And take a drive up to Captiva and hae dinner a the Mucky Duck after watching the sunset on the beach just outside their door.

4 Thank northernnellie
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
Murfreesboro, TN
Level 6 Contributor
79 reviews
182 helpful votes
“Shelling no what I expected”
Reviewed December 2, 2006

We went to Sanibel (my family with 3 children) specifically because of it's reputation for great shelling and walked away very disappointed. We stopped first at Light House Beach. This beach was quite literally a nasty sess-pool of dead sea creatures (crab parts, fish parts, other unidentifiable things) floating in the surf. What surprised me most was that people were actually sitting in beach chairs sunning on this nasty beach, stench and all - letting their kids run around in this disgusting soup. The water had oil in it from the very active waterway between Sanibel and the mainland. I wouldn't shell there for fear of catching some disease.

Next went to Turner Beach and Blind Pass (on the recommendation of some locals). That beach was much better. It was clean and there were quite literally bucket loads of shells washed up on the shore for easy pickings. The problem was that these shells are all too small to be meaningful (unless you are a crafter and want to make stuff out of thousands of tiny shells). You could get a thousand million shells of not much variety and do something like made jewelry - but if your looking for prize display shells - forget it. Everything bigger than your thumb has been pounded to powder by the very strong wave action from the ocean. The beach has no natural barrier reef - so the waves from the ocean are strong (at least that day).

Finally - we went to Bowmans Beach. This beach was probably the best of the three - not beautiful by beach standards (so so sand and zero water clarity). I suppose there are days when the water is clearer - but the surf was constant and strong. You couldn't wade out - and you can't take live specimens which means, again, anything larger than your thumb has been pounded into a thousand small shell pieces. Also - you have to walk througha bog to get to this beach from the parking lot and the sand flies (look like knats) will eat you for lunch. Be sure to use bug spray.

If your into bulk shell collecting this is the place for you. Bring a 55 gallon drum and you could go home with that many shells. Problem is there isn't much variety and/or they are tiny. I found one beautiful lightening welk - but it was live so I had to toss it back.

Overall - I'd skip this island and go someplace with less surf, less people, cleaner water, and no restrictions on live shelling (their just overgrown slugs for crying out loud - it's not like your killing baby seals). We had better luck at Fort Desoto Beach and Pensacola Beach. I give Sanibel 3 stars because I know that some shellers will like what it has to offer - and the Blind Pass beach actually had dark (black) sand which intrigued me. My kids play in any sand so of course they had a blast. But we didn't get many shells - which was the point of our trip.

2 Thank csblinky
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC

Been to Sanibel Island? Share your experiences!

Write a Review Add Photos & Videos